Anemia: Causes, Types, and Symptoms

Anemia affects nearly 9 percent of the population, yet most people don't understand what it is. Even the term anemia is confusing because it indicates several distinct health conditions with different symptoms, causes, and treatments. So what exactly is anemia?

Most of the time, when someone is diagnosed with anemia, she has a condition called Iron-Deficiency anemia. This means she either lacks enough iron in her blood to support red blood cell production or she lacks enough hemoglobin (a protein found on red blood cells) to properly oxygenate the body and remove carbon dioxide. Red blood cells are produced in the bone marrow. Normal red blood cells are disc-shaped and look like doughnuts without holes in the center. They move easily through the blood vessels and carry oxygen to every cell.

While Iron-Deficiency Anemia is the most commonly diagnosed type, there are many different types of anemia. For example:

Aplastic Anemia is a condition in which the body doesn't make enough red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets because the bone marrow's stem cells are damaged.

Blood Loss Anemia occurs when someone bleeds heavily from an injury, surgery, heavy menstruation, or some other reason.

Sickle Cell Anemia causes red blood cells to develop a sickle, or crescent, shape. Sickle cells are stiff and sticky and tend to block blood flow in the blood vessels of the limbs and organs. Blocked blood flow can cause pain, serious infections, and organ damage.

Pernicious Anemia is a condition in which the body can't make enough healthy red blood cells because it doesn't have enough vitamin B12. People who have pernicious anemia can't absorb enough vitamin B12 from food because they lack intrinsic factor, a protein made in the stomach.

Iron-Deficiency Anemia is a common, easily treated condition and the one most people are referring to when they say they're anemic. It usually develops over time when your body doesn't have enough iron to build healthy red blood cells. Low iron levels usually are due to blood loss, poor diet, or an inability to absorb enough iron from food. Women are at increased risk for this type of anemia because of menstruation, especially if they experience very heavy or frequent periods.

How do you know if you have anemia? Mild anemia might not have any symptoms and is only diagnosed when your doctor draws blood for unrelated lab tests. Patients with more advanced anemia might have some of these symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Coldness in your hands and feet
  • Pale skin
  • Irregular heart beat
  • Chest pain

Your doctor will diagnose anemia by doing a physical exam and ordering lab tests (a complete blood count and others). Treatment may focus on finding the source of bleeding or cause of anemia plus treatments to replace iron and increase red blood cell production. Those might include diet changes to increase iron-rich food consumption (like spinach, red meat, milk, eggs, and others), vitamin C, and vitamin B12. In cases of severe anemia, patients might need a blood or iron transfusion.

The best want to prevent anemia is to eat a healthy diet that includes iron-rich foods and plenty of fruits and vegetables. See your physician if you have any reason to think you might have anemia, especially if Sickle Cell Anemia runs in your family.